Some people go a lifetime without knowing their mission in life, without feeling they have true calling, and without knowing why they even do what they do. Nahko is not one of them. And that calling and mission has never been clearer than it is on Nahko and Medicine for the People’s third full¬length album, HOKA(SideOneDummy Records).
On HOKA, Nahko’s voice is strong. His mission is clear. The mandate has been thrown down. “Hoka is a Lakota word, an indigenous tribe from the Great Plains, it is a call to action. It’s what Crazy Horse would say when he went into battle, ‘Hoka, hey!’ My call is to put action to the words that I speak and the lyrics I sing. Not just to talk, but to do,” says Oregon¬born singer/songwriter Nahko, who is of Puerto Rican, Native American (Apache), and Filipino descent.
“This is the soundtrack of the movement for a better planet,” he continues. “I want to challenge myself and others to make a change.” “Hoka,” which is the intro to the first track, “Directions,” is one of the album’s many song intros used as a way to round out the storytelling on the tracks. “On this intro, my uncles are chanting the lyrics to ‘Directions’ in Lakota, and the three female voices include a clairvoyant, an astrologer, and a friend who all had important messages for me that are a big part of my story,” he explains.
It’s been three years since the Los Angeles, California¬based Nahko and Medicine for the People’s last record, Dark As Night. That release reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Top Alternative New Album, No. 6 on the Heatseekers album chart, No. 36 on the Top Independent Album chart, and No. 7 in Australia on Triple J’s Top 10 Roots Albums of 2013. Nahko and Medicine for the People gathered more members of their global tribe of like¬minded fans as they spread their powerful and impactful musical message on tour with such acts as Michael Franti, Xavier Rudd, SOJA, and Trevor Hall, and on festivals including Outside Lands, Electric Forest, Wanderlust, Bumbershoot, California Roots Music Festival, Byron Bay Blues & Roots Festival, and many more.
Critics have praised the group’s worldly blend of rock, hip¬hop, and alt¬folk. OC Weekly called the group ¬ which also includes Chase Makai (lead guitar), Justin Chittams (drums), Pato (bass and kora),Tim Snider (violin) and Max Ribner (horns), “empowering” and “powerful. “The Huffington Post called Dark As Night “beautiful and stirring,” and compared Nahko to Bob Marley and a “musical prophet.”
That prophetic nature comes through even stronger on HOKA, which was produced by Grammy Award¬winning producer Ted Hutt (The Gaslight Anthem, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero, Dropkick Murphys) “Over the last three years, I’ve been cracked open so deeply in my own healing to really give this record my all,” explains Nahko. “My style of writing and my intentions with how I put things together has evolved a lot. I’m able to better paint the picture after time on the road, seeing first¬hand the emotional state of the people of the world, of how sick people are, and how much healing they need.”
The personal healing that he refers to, is based on the fact that he is product of a mother who was just 14¬years¬old when she was forced into human trafficking. He was adopted at 9¬ months ¬old and in his 20s, learned about his family’s tragic backstory. This is the inspiration for his life’s work and music.
To that end, “San Quentin” is a pivotal song in the telling of his story. It was inspired by Nahko’s visit with the imprisoned man who murdered his father ¬ a father he had never met. “It’s about forgiveness,” says Nahko. “I went there to forgive this man and in forgiving him, I freed myself. It only hurts yourself to hang onto hate. Forgiveness empowers you to create change. I believe everything happens for a reason ¬ good and bad. People are put in your life for a reason, and you need to turn that pain into something positive to make the world a better place.”
“Make a Change,” which features singer/songwriter Zella Day, represents the heart of this record. “I was challenging myself to take action on what’s important, to not make the same mistakes over and over, and continue to evolve. It’s aimed at the youth, in a sense, because we as the youth have to be the ones to get out of the vicious cycle of negativity,” he explains.
Another pivotal song is “Tus Pies (Your Feet),” which was inspired in part by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda. “It’s about friendship and being an anchor for someone. Pies is the Spanish word for ‘feet.’ At the end of that poem, Neruda says a line I cherish: ‘I love your feet for how they walked on the mountains and through the rivers and through the valleys until they found me.’ I’ve always loved that picture of how we find people in life and all of the intricate twists and turns that it takes for someone to arrive.”
“It Is Written” tells the story of how Nahko finally got closure on his past, giving him even more motivation to continue on his musical path and social mission. “This song is the story of the clairvoyant, who speaks on ‘Hoka,’ who reached out to me to tell me some very important things. She said, ‘I talked to your dad and he’s really sorry for what he did. I talked to your [Indian] grandma and she’s gathering the nations for you. It is written. Don’t push your destiny. Just let it happen.’ This was a big step in my healing process and the first real step to letting go. They are my guides.”
Other guests include Trevor Hall, Xavier Rudd, Rising Appalachia’s Leah Song, and the female trio Joseph on both “Directions” and “The Wolves Have Returned.” Hawane, a Hawaiian singer, and Pua Case, one of Nahko’s spiritual teachers and Hawane’s mother, appear on “Ku Kia’i Mauna.”
The album cover, by artist David Hale, sums up the theme as well. Nahko explains, “It’s a warrior dancer. The warrior needs to be strong, and the dancer represents grace. Through the merging of the two you get change through peace. You get Hoka.”